Hospitals' new specialist: Social media manager

As Facebook, Twitter and other technologies become more pervasive, more hospitals are hiring staff members dedicated solely to social media -- and getting physicians to use these tools.

By Bob Cook — Posted Nov. 8, 2010

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For otolaryngologist Douglas Backous, MD, Twitter and blogging were "like speaking a foreign language." So he went to his hospital and got himself a translator: Dana Lewis, hired by Seattle's Swedish Medical Center to handle all things social media.

Lewis is part of a trend in a new and growing type of hospital employment: the social media manager.

Technically, she's called the interactive marketing specialist. But she, and others like her, are being charged by their hospitals to handle such duties as overseeing their social media presence, communicating with patients through social media -- and, in many cases, teaching affiliated or employed physicians how to use social media. The idea is that by having a person dedicated to social media, the hospital can use the technology to strengthen its connections with all of what organizations like to call their stakeholders, which include the physicians who refer patients through their doors.

"Part of why hospitals are heading in this direction is part of the general zeitgeist, the general awareness that these ways of communication and connecting with each other are transforming" hospitals and their relationships, said Robert Matney, a partner who follows health and social media for Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Social Web Strategies.

Social media managers are hired by hospitals that already have a presence on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or other sites. Usually, the position grows out of a realization that social media require more time and effort -- and have a worthwhile payoff.

That's not to say that hospitals without social media managers don't see the technology as important. Or that the social media manager is the only one expected to know anything about Facebook, and how people converse on it.

At Swedish, Communications Director Melissa Tizon wasn't planning to hire anyone dedicated solely to social media until she saw a post on Twitter by Lewis that she was one month from graduating from college and didn't have a job. Lewis is founder of the #hcsm (a Twitter "hashtag" descriptor that is short for "health care social media") Sunday night chats on the site.

Tizon hired Lewis, who started in July and quickly trained physicians (and Swedish's chief executive officer) about subjects such as how to post and respond to others' posts on Twitter; the legal and ethical rules for doctors on social media; how to interact with patients through social media; and how to use social media to make yourself a "thought leader" in your field.

Lewis, who got interested in health care and social media as a patient (she has type 1 diabetes), said her job is not to sell physicians who are skeptical about social media, "though I'd love for them to try." Instead, she responds to requests from physicians such as Dr. Backous, who wanted to use social media to help promote Swedish's Center for Hearing and Skull Base Surgery.

"I use Dana a lot as a resource. Like if you're adapting an electronic medical record. You have superusers to help you come up to speed," Dr. Backous said. "As you get into it, you realize it's useful. Someone like Dana continues the momentum."

An extension of public relations

The number of hospitals with staff members dedicated to social media is unknown. But a check of, an online jobs board aggregator, shows more hospitals advertising for such positions, such as Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio; University Medical Center in Princeton, N.J.; and Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. The latter is among the few that have stated how much it pays for the position -- somewhere in the $60,000- to $80,000-a-year range.

The position is new because social media hasn't been used by hospitals for long. According to University of Maryland Medical Center director of Web strategy Ed Bennett -- the closest to a historian the field has -- the first hospital YouTube account was up in 2006, and the first Twitter account started in 2008.

As of Oct. 19, 871 hospitals have 2,259 social media sites, according to Bennett's Hospital Social Network List, which he keeps on his blog. Bennett said his hospital has no one dedicated solely to social media, as do most on his list.

For years, the Mayo Clinic has had an active social media presence, but it was only in July that it dedicated its first staff member solely to it -- Lee Aase. He had worked in Mayo public relations, getting the clinic into social media in 2005 by recording its first podcast. Aase is now director of Mayo's Center for Social Media, and is involved not only with training Mayo's doctors, but also setting up a network that will teach outside hospitals and physician about social media.

"We're providing consultation to physicians who are interested in seeing how physicians could apply these tools, and training. The major focus has been just to facilitate," Aase said.

No physician is required to learn social media, he said. "If they don't want to do it, they won't be any good at it."

But Aase is an evangelist at Mayo for social media. On his own blog, Aase put up a Martin Luther-style 35 theses (instead of the Protestant Reformation leader's 95 -- Aase couldn't think of that many) that can be nailed to any hospital door to declare why social media must be adopted and embraced.

Reaching its potential

Matney said hiring social media managers is a sign that hospitals are taking the first steps to embrace the technology, though many hospital executives still don't see what the big deal is. The establishment of a social media manager is "a tactical response from an overworked team that doesn't understand the breadth of the issue."

Top executives "in the medical industry [have] not yet come to terms with the fact that this change is profound and pervasive," Matney said. "And it's a transformation in how business is getting done. The focus [of social media managers] by and large is marketing and public relations." Hospitals' social media efforts haven't expanded into all forms of communication -- such as how it might be used for patient handoffs, he said.

Social media are "about whole organization transformation, not really tactics. Though tactics are important."

Part of the problem, Matney acknowledged, is that there are little data to show hospital executives about the financial and quality-of-care effects of social media. However, one of Aase's theses refers to social media's relative small cost, given that programs generally are free: As investment approaches zero, return on investment approaches infinity.

At this point, Dana Lewis is talking to physicians at Swedish not so much about return on investment, but about tactics -- how to use social media presence to your advantage while not putting yourself in legal and ethical jeopardy. "We have an Internet postings policy. We have guidelines whether you're using social media at work, or personally. If you're tweeting for a professional Swedish account, we have more hands-on coaching."

Dr. Backous is one of the 100 physicians Lewis estimated she has worked with at Swedish. Dr. Backous has started blogging and posting to Twitter, though he said he doesn't do either as often as he would like.

But thanks to Lewis' help, Dr. Backous has become a true believer in social media, hearing from others in the otology and neurotology fields, and also getting the means to have closer communication with his deaf patients.

"This is mind-boggling," Dr. Backous said.

All the while, he is helping Swedish spread its name all over the world.

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Social media best practices

Hospitals with social media policies -- or anyone involved in social media -- will spell out a few basic rules for physicians who want to engage with others using the technology. The wording is different depending on the hospital, but the best practices they espouse go something like this:

Listen before you leap. The best way to learn about how social media works -- and what you can do with it -- is to spend time on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other sites just seeing what's going on. That way, you can get a feel for the rhythm of each site, think about what your place would be in the conversation, and determine which site, or sites, fits in with your social media goals.

Have something to say -- and speak often. To build an audience, you need to have something interesting to say to your intended audience. And you can't just post once a week and expect feedback. You have to post with some frequency and regularity to get people to look at you as a source.

Ensure that conversations go both ways. One of the most effective ways to build a social media audience is to respond to what others have to say. You're talking to and with people, not at them.

Don't be a jerk. Avoid being argumentative, or posting anything that is libelous, profane, obscene, threatening, hateful, harassing or embarrassing to another person. Beyond any professional repercussions, remember that, just like in real life, people on social media don't want to be stuck in a conversation with a boor. Assume that whatever you post stays on the Internet forever.

Abide by all laws and policies. You might know that posting information about a patient could violate privacy laws, but you might not know that pasting a picture from a newspaper site onto your blog violates copyright laws. Meanwhile, if you are posting as a representative from your practice or hospital, you should abide by all policies that cover electronic media. You should use a disclaimer to say that any opinions are yours and don't represent the organization.

Think before you post. Nothing says you have to post a thought as soon as you have it. If you're not sure whether a post is appropriate, many hospitals, medical associations and others have contacts with which you can discuss whether the post meets all legal and ethical standards -- or whether the post is merely just a bad idea.

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Hospitals' social media presence

Ed Bennett, the director of web strategy for the University of Maryland Medical Center, keeps the closest thing there is to a comprehensive look at hospitals' social media presence. As of Oct. 19, Bennett said 871 hospitals have 2,259 social media sites. Here is a breakdown of the top states followed by the number of hospitals and their type of social media use:

Social media overall
New York 93
Michigan 56
California 53
Illinois 45
Texas 45
New York 43
California 31
Michigan 30
Florida 24
Illinois 21
Texas 21
New York 84
California 43
Michigan 41
Florida 37
Texas 36
New York 50
California 40
Texas 37
Michigan 34
Florida 31
New York 64
California 23
Texas 23
Massachusetts 22
Florida 21
Texas 8
Maryland 7
North Carolina 7
Ohio 7
California 6
Illinois 6
Combined social media sites
New York 246
California 143
Texas 125
Michigan 124
Florida 118

Source: Hospital Social Network List (link)

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Theses on social media

Lee Aase, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, was inspired by theologian Martin Luther to put together a list of 35 social media theses. (The leader of the Protestant Reformation had 95 theses, but Aase said he couldn't come up with that many.) Among them:

  • Social media are as old as human speech, with air being the medium through which sound waves propagate.
  • Electronic tools merely facilitate broader and more efficient transmission by overcoming inertia and friction.
  • The mass media era was a temporary anomaly.
  • Social media are the third millennium's defining communications thread.
  • Social media affect every industry; technology grows those effects exponentially.
  • Social media were originally about relationships, not technology. They still are.
  • Hand-wringing about the merits and dangers of social media is as productive as debating gravity.
  • Just as failing to account for gravity's effects is disastrous in aeronautics, neglecting social media's power can cripple an organization.
  • Mass media will remain powerful levers that move -- and are moved by -- social media buzz.
  • Social media strategies can't compensate for an inferior offering.
  • Social media strategies can help make a product, service or experience better.
  • Communications and marketing professionals who fail to understand social media flirt with media malpractice.
  • Social media tools offer unprecedented opportunity for transformational change and productivity.
  • Strategic thinking about social media is no substitute for action.
  • You can hear a lot just by listening.
  • Social media tools make the once-scarce power of mass media available to anyone.
  • Social media are free in any ordinary sense of the word.
  • As investment approaches zero, return on investment approaches infinity.
  • MacGyver is the model for social medial success.
  • Social media tools enable authentic communication if you don't purposefully complicate things.
  • Technology makes things possible. People make things happen.
  • Social media are an essential part of a balanced communications diet.
  • Almost all Web surfers use social media today. They just may not know it.
  • Compelling, remarkable content that people actually want is far more valuable than advertising time or space.
  • If your product, service or experience is remarkable enough, your customers will create content for you.
  • Your mileage may vary, but you'll go a lot further if you get a car.
  • Greatness, as Stephen Covey says in The 8th Habit, consists in "Finding your voice and inspiring others to find theirs."
  • Paying for advertising while not taking advantage of free online opportunities isn't particularly astute.
  • Your kids aren't smarter than you are. They're just not afraid to look dumb.
  • You can save enough using free social tools in your current work to pay for your expanded efforts in social media.
  • Unforeseen implications of social media are more likely positive than negative.
  • Health care organizations should thoughtfully engage with social media.
  • Social media will decrease diffusion time for medical research and health care innovations.
  • Challenges of introducing social media in health care are not unique.
  • Social technologies will transform health care.

Sources: Lee Aase, Social Media University, Global blog (link)

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External links

Blog of Douglas Backous, MD, Swedish Center for Hearing and Skull-Based Surgery (link)

Social Media University, Global, blog of Lee Aase, director of the Center for Social Media, Mayo Clinic (link)

Hospital Social Network List, maintained by Ed Bennett, director of web strategies, University of Maryland Medical Center (link)

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